Gaggia Achille Lever: You are the machine

Renaissance and revival -- the Gaggia Achille lever

Espresso as a beverage dates back to 1901 when Luigi Bezzera patented the world's first "espresso" machine, a giant steam driven brewer with two groupheads called the Tipo Gigante.


Legend has it that Bezzera developed this brew method to help reduce the time his employees took for a coffee break. Bezzera needed to increase the production of his employees, so a faster "coffee maker" seemed to be just the thing. His coffee maker used a combination of water and steam, forced under high pressure through coffee grounds, to rapidly brew the coffee. It was dubbed the "espresso machine".

The obvious downside to Luigi's coffee machine was in the method. Brewing with a combination of steam and hot water under pressure did brew a faster cup than brewers of that era, but the resulting coffee was bitter and scorched. Desiderio Pavoni, who purchased Bezzera's patent in 1905, knew that the bitterness was the result of the steam and the very high brewing temperatures. Pavoni began experimenting with various temperatures and pressures, and finally concluded that brewing at 195 degrees with 9 BAR of pressure yielded the ideal cup. This is the basis for espresso as we know it today.

The basic design for the Gaggia lever espresso machine dates back to 1947, when Gaggia introduced the Gaggia Crema Caffe machine. Capable of consistently introducing pressurized water (8 BAR or higher) into a bed of coffee, it quickly revolutionized espresso coffee in the home and in the cafe. Prior to the Gaggia lever, virtually every commercial and consumer espresso machine was steam driven. True espresso had arrived.


Sixty years later, Gaggia has returned to their roots with the Gaggia Achille lever espresso maker.

To take the traditional lever a step forward, Gaggia has added a heat-exchanging head to the brew group to improve the overall performance. Reg James of EspressoTec.Com was good enough to loan us a demo for unlimited testing. This is what we found.

The Gaggia Achille is not a totally new concept. The heat exchanging brew head goes back to the Nineteen sixties with the Faema E61. The core of the Achille, as we have said, was borne in 1948. What Gaggia has done is bring together all these classic elements in a way that has not been done quite like this. It is still a lever espresso maker and that means it is the most challenging method of espresso preparation, bar none.

The Gaggia Achille is not for the faint of heart. You might be able to smell the coffee, but the Gaggia lever can smell your fear. More, much more on that later!

Open the Box

The Gaggia Achille lever comes in a dual cardboard box with of foam on the bottom as well as crush resistant cardboard inserts that double as kit holder for all the accessories. At 9kg or 20 pounds, the Gaggia Achille Lever comes with 1 commercial 58mm portafilters (single and double baskets) as well as the ubiquitous plastic tamper and coffee scoop. A multipage and multilingual manual give you just enough information to get cranking in a jiffy.

Missing bits?

Some Pavoni lever units I am testing concurrently contain VHS Tapes in the kit - Instructional video would be good for any lever machine and the Achille is no exception. Any lever espresso maker is capable of making a grown man cry so read the freaking manual (several times) and consult some of the internet resources listed at the end of this article. Really. Do it!

The terminator in disguise

Gaggia Achille Espresso Lever MachineThe Gaggia Achille Lever is sheathed in a skin of stainless steel. The hot-parts (the boiler) have a layer of sheet steel that keep your pinkies from meeting super-hot boiler surfaces. Older Pavoni levers were notorious for exposed hot zones - if you were not extra careful you would be wearing a pretty steam scald for days. Not exactly hazardous but not entirely fetching either! The Gaggia Achille appears to use a higher level of steel that should resist rust for years of faithful service.
The Gaggia Achille Lever is somewhat taller (at 45cm - 17.6") than most machines (except some Elektra's!) so keep this in mind when you are sizing up a machine for your kitchen. It clears my kitchen cabinets by about 4". The Pavoni lever series (the Europiccola in particular, being tested right now) are downright petite in comparison.

The Gaggia Achille lever is the picture of operational simplicity. One illuminated power switch with two colored indicators wraps up the electrics. The Gaggia lever uses a 1250 watt heating element for a quick heat. It is protected with an over-heat reset and a pressure-stat keeps the boiler pressure at a steady .8 ATM - keep in mind that the boiler pressure is there to push water to the brew group, not to assist in or brew espresso. You are the power plant here folks. You are the machine.

The boiler is about 1.0 L, and nickel-plated brass. But wait, there is more, much more.
The Achille has two water systems, similar to other commercial HX or heat-exchanged machines - the boiler water is essently static, directly heated by the main element, and used mainly for steam production. The water used for espresso delivery is drawn into the heat exchanger from the clear water reservoir on top, and pre-heated by the boiler water. Raising the lever lifts the hydraulic piston, which then allows the pre-heated exchanger water to fill the piston cylinder which comes into contact with the espresso grinds.

Lowering the lever forces this water through the espresso grounds. Espresso can be made without interuption as the clear water reservoir can be filled from the top repeatedly! Another big advantage of this system is that fresh water can be quickly added, for improved espresso extraction and taste.

I reiterate with the warning: The success you have with the Gaggia Achille is entirely dependant on your ability; to pick perfectly fresh espresso coffee, to grind it with a semi-commercial grinder the same over and over and your abilty to raise and lower the lever arm according to the particular mood the Gaggia Achille might be in at that particular moment. Failure to understand the mood or zen space of the Gaggia Achille lever espresso maker will result in truely awful espresso. Your ability to get into the "lever espresso groove" (more on that later) will guarantee you breath-taking shots of espresso again and again. Good luck!

Mommy!

You are the machine. There is no other method of espresso brewing like the lever. A couple more rules:

  • The Gaggia Achille Lever is not for the newbie to espresso
  • Without the requisite understanding of how espresso is brewed, there can be no success with the Gaggia Lever (or any lever espresso maker for that matter)
  • Any success (without above knowledge) is purely conincidental and cannot be counted on.

The Gaggia Achille lever espresso rewards patient and diligent consumers with inspirational shots of espresso and enough steam power to brew an endless lineup of cappuccino, latte and other equally tasty specialty coffee beverages.



ready to lift

lift to load!

ready to pull
     
Setting up on solid ground

The Gaggia Achille is a solidly built unit and there is a lot of physicality involved in pulling (or pushing) shots of espresso. You will be pushing down at 20 pounds of pressure or more. You must have a solid surface. Kitchen counter tops are perfect. Glass tables are not perfect! Understand this: You will add inches to your biceps with time. Understand your surroundings and the integrity of the work surface!

Ticking away the moments...

As with any espresso machine, let it warm up. The Gaggia Achille has lots of metal to heat up. That said, I was up and brewing in about 10 minutes.

Prior to first power-up, fill the boiler to the upper sight-line and screw on the boiler cap (good and tight.) Place the upper reservoir in place. Add a litre of water or so. You can fill it up with you want. Flip the power switch. There will be lots of bubbling and gurgling inside the Gaggia Achille boiler. This is very normal. As the "pressure" builds, the pressure gauge will slowly increase into the green zone. The green light will come on. You are ready to pull.

There is a lot of technique and finesse involved in mastering the lever. I have not created a lever tutorial as of yet. I will be writing a follow-up to this article as well as a series of articles on other popular lever espresso machines. So, stay tuned. For the brave, there is no brew method more unforgiving. Know this and celebrate!

You are the machine


The Gaggia Achille lever rewards a disciplined and focused user with endless shots of rich and intense espresso and enough micro-foam to latte-art yourself into oblivion.

The Gaggia Achille is all about keeping the elements (or components, ingredients, etc) the very same each and every brewing session. There is no espresso brewing system more sensitive to grind and coffee freshness than the lever system. There is no espresso brewing system that responds directly to your physical responses like the lever. Love it or hate it. You will pick one.

Follow-up and In closing- Resources

The Gaggia Achille lever system is the next generation of classic lever espresso makers. In a continuing series of reviews, I will visit several more of these mechanical wonders. Like this one, these reviews are not meant to be tutorials on using lever units - This is a product review. There are many great online guides for the Lever style espresso maker and I will short append some of these links to this review - in a couple of days most likely.

As always, the coffeecrew extends many, many thanks to Reg James at EspressoTec.Com for this (and all the other) loaners. The Gaggia Achille lever espresso machine is currently on its way to Dave in Ottawa where he will test and express opinions. Here at CoffeeCrew central in Victoria, we are testing a small fleet of lever machines, like the Pavoni Pro and will report on these shortly. I will also be doing a follow-up to this article from a more hands on perspective - including action photos, tips, tricks and tutorials.

CoffeeCrew rating - 8 out of a possible 10 | represents excellent value with a higher than average level of user difficulty.


Some links: Pavoni-Express - Pavoni-HowTo - Ultimate-Pavoni Site


Colin Newell lives and works in Victoria B.C. at a local University. His love of coffee began at the age of 15. He had his first espresso-cappuccino at age 19 and has never looked back. The CoffeeCrew website has been on the air profiling cafe culture and consumer issues for the coffee lover since the Spring of 1994.